Sunday, August 06, 2017

Anomaly v Huemer on Immigration

People often assume that to allow immigration is an act of charity: a country generously sharing its land and institutions with outsiders who have no real claim to be there.  Michael Huemer's work forcefully upends this assumption, showing that immigration restrictions are in fact a form of harmful coercion (like blocking a starving man from accessing a public market where he could trade for food). This reconceptualisation shifts the argumentative "burden", insofar as we generally accept that it is much more difficult to justify coercively harming someone (a seeming rights-violation) than to merely refrain from assisting them.

Jonny Anomaly, in a recent blog post on the issue, seems to miss this key feature of Huemer's argument, instead characterizing Huemer's argument in terms of "mutually beneficial gains", and responding that "although a small number of voluntary transactions may benefit all parties, this does not entail that a large series of transactions will benefit everyone."  But Huemer relies on no such entailment.  Indeed, he explicitly argues that incidental disadvantages don't justify harmful coercion: You may not block Starving Marvin's access to the market just because you're worried that he will beat a local to the last loaf of cheap bread.

It would of course be more relevant if immigration would somehow cause the total breakdown of society -- non-absolutists allow that rights may be overridden to avoid disaster.  But there is insufficient reason to accept such overblown fears at this stage. (Anomaly speculates that "At the extreme, unlimited migration might destroy the very institutions to which Starving Marvin wishes to immigrate."  We are given no reason to consider this credible.)

The reasonable response to such concerns is not to use them to drum up opposition to immigration (or the open borders ideal) in our current -- excessively nativist -- milieu, but just to keep an eye out for new evidence as we move to reduce the barriers to immigration.  As Huemer himself writes:
I grant that it may be wise to move only gradually towards open borders. The United States might, for example, increase immigration by one million persons per year, and continue increasing the immigration rate until either everyone who wishes to immigrate is accommodated, or we start to observe serious harmful consequences. My hope and belief would be that the former would happen first. But in case the latter occurred, we could freeze or lower immigration levels at that time.

Is there any reasonable basis for rejecting this "gradualist" proposal?


  1. Thanks for the response, Richard. I like the point you made at the end about Huemer too. My impetus in writing the essay, though, was less about Heumer's specific view (I just like his thought experiment), and more of a pushback to libertarians who don't see any potential problems with open borders. More specifically, I wanted to push back against people who think (a) if some immigrants are good for a nation, then more must be better, regardless of their characteristics (Cato Institute tends to argue this way), and (b) that mass migration has no effect on the institutions to which the migration occurs. I think both are dubious assumptions.

    Another impetus was listening to Sam Harris's interview with Douglass Murray on The Strange Death of Europe. While I don't share all of Murray's views, learning about mass rapes in Europe, and significantly higher crime rates by recent migrants, is concerning. What's worse is the cover-up by British and German elites of these crimes. Along these lines I'd add that even if migrants have prima facie rights, these rights can be overridden by the rights of people living in a place who face an elevated risk of violent crime or institutional decay. It's an empirical question under what conditions those are likely to occur.

    1. Mere "elevated risks" are not, in general, the sorts of things that can override other rights. It would be wrong to forcibly prevent poor racial minorities from having children, for example, even if the resulting children would be of a demographic that (statistically speaking) features "significantly higher crime rates" on average. Similarly, it seems to me pretty clearly morally wrong to bar access to an innocent potential immigrant on the basis of demographic (e.g. racial or religious) profiling.

      Of course, if the individual in question has expressed an intention to commit crimes, then that's another matter. But the "pre-punishment" of (very likely) innocent individuals strikes me as pretty deplorable, and not something that we tend to accept in any other context.

    2. Hi, Richard,

      Immigration restrictions are generally not intended as a punishment, so the motivation is different. Also, telling people they're not allowed to enter a country is not the same as banning them from having children, in terms of the burden imposed on them.

      Regarding racial or religious profiling for immigration, I think that those are two very different things. Religion is unlike race in several respects, some of which may be relevant to different policies, such as responsibility for having those religious beliefs, and impact of religion on behavior. For example, religious beliefs include moral beliefs, and those tend to be action-guiding, but they're not the only ones, in the context of other beliefs. There are religious groups that practice, say, burning people for witchcraft, or maiming albinos for spells, executing people for same-sex relations, etc., depending on the case.

      More generally, if cultural practices - based on religion or not - in some country A often involve things such as beating and/or killing gay men (with or without legal sanction), child marriages, submission (in many respects, including perhaps allowing him to use force) of a woman to the husband, and there is wide popular support for those practices among A's society, I think it would be reasonable to take that into consideration when assessing whether or not to allow people from country A to go into country B without restrictions - and, depending on the conditions in B, the restrictions can be a pretty good idea.
      One should not expect that massive numbers of immigrants will go from A to B and then change their ways and stop doing that. Rather, one could expect conflict and a serious deterioration of the conditions of country B.

      Also, if immigration is allowed, the children of immigrants should be given birthright citizenship (else, another set of serious problems ensues), but then, if their communities don't assimilate and keep their practices, even if immigration from A to B causes serious deterioration of rights and freedoms in B, it may well be that preventing further immigration might not get enough popular support from citizens, or even if it does, higher fertility rates among the descendants of the immigrants would still cause further damage.

      So, while I agree that "elevated risks" are not enough to ban immigration, it seems to me that even assuming a general right to migrate and the market-access analogy (which I think is also debatable, but that aside), it would still be a matter of considering how big the risks are, the burdens imposed on both potential immigrants and locals, etc.

      That said, it might be that future global changes due to technological developments (e.g., AI, brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering, etc.), will change the world so radically that there will be no time for the bad cultural practices in question to become predominant in the countries receiving immigrants who engage in them, and their descendants too will not keep those practices. Or maybe without those radical changes, they won't keep those practices for some other reason. The risks, however, seem real and serious to me (considerably more in Europe than the US, though; that might or might not change if there were truly open borders).

    3. Given Murray's reputation, I would hope that people would do some actual due diligence. For example we could ignore the obvious bait of "immigrant crime has risen sharply", a rate with no control that would naturally rise by the rate of immigration anyway and is clearly very sensitive to policy (because migrant poverty is a policy choice which causes migrant crime), and instead concentrate on rates of crime relative to native born peoples and we'll be shocked to discover the evidence suggest the *opposite* of what Murray claims:

      "A burgeoning literature relying on strong instruments provides mixed findings.As one economist describes the existing literature in 2014, "most research for the US indicates that if any, this association is negative... while the results for Europe are mixed for property crime but no association is found for violent crime".

  2. Hi Richard,

    I have no firm opinions on this, but what would you say to an objection like this: Huemer's argument relies too much on the favorable characteristics that come from comparing the nation to a market. There's a presumption that anyone with good money should have a right to a market, or at least this right is pretty expansive and there is a presumption against anyone who would want to keep him from it. But if the nation is more like a family than a market, then the analogy changes significantly. Then the immigrant is more like someone who would come up to you and Helen and demand that you adopt him. Even if you were in a position to support him, its doubtful that anyone would think that your turning him down would be the same sort of thing as keeping someone from a market at which he was prepared to pay. But it doesn't seem totally unreasonable that a nation is more relevantly like a family than a market: nations often demand persons take oaths to become citizens (like marriage vows), they will often forcibly conscript citizens to die for them durning wars (claiming, in effect, that one owes his life to the nation), and it's common for citizens to take family and country as things of absolute value in a way that no one takes a marketplace.

    1. Hi James, we really are just arguing for access to labour markets (and physical residency), not necessarily political citizenship. (See also this old post.)

    2. That makes sense, and to some extent every economy will have to allow for a two-tier system of citizens and those with fewer rights than citizens. Both of us earned our Ph. D's in non-native countries, for example.

      My main concern with having a two-tier economy on the scale that Huemer's proposal suggests is that it it creates large-scale incentives for the Bourgeois to prefer workers with fewer rights, increasing income disparity and giving rise to a resultant feedback loop that leads to the rule of wealth. Maybe Huemer wouldn't see that as a sufficient good to deny access (or maybe he would give empirical reasons why it wouldn't happen) but I'm more conflicted. I also think such a two-tier system is probably unsustainable: we can't in fact keep someone to just market access. To live at all in the host nation requires using more resources than just what the market provides: health care, the law enforcement and judicial apparatus, education, transportation, etc. In the US and Canada, there is also the issue of birthright citizenship. If this is right we'd be kidding ourselves if we thought we could divide market access by immigration from a path to citizenship.

      Still, Huemer's argument is the best one I've ever seen about this issue. The nativist arguments I've looked at certainly aren't on Huemer's level.

    3. One last question: if Huemer's analogy of detaining someone from a market who later dies is apt, wouldn't it predict that the majority of deportees die within a few months? Said another way, would it create problems for his analogy if we were not arguing about an immigrant's life and death but quality of life? I'm very confident that I have a moral obligation not to keep someone from a market if it were a matter of life and death, but I'm not sure that there is a single answer to the question of what my obligations are to increase another's quality of life.

    4. The relevant question is rather whether you're obliged to refrain from coercively interfering with others (in a way that decreases their quality of life). For another example: I may not sabotage a competitor's car to prevent them from interviewing for a job I hope to get myself. Not life-or-death stakes anymore, but still clearly wrong.

    5. I might have lost track of the argument, but isn't not allowing immigration by definition to maintain the status quo ante? If a guy has quality of life X, and sees emigration from his country as promising X+N, then if I keep him from coming, doesn't he just stay at X?

      I see that any immigration policy other than complete open borders has to actively frustrate some attempts at access, but does Hummer address how it necessarily decreases quality of life?

    6. The relevant comparison is not temporal, but counterfactual. Again, if I forcibly prevent you from attending a job interview, you may be no worse off than you were the previous day, but you're worse off than you would have been had you gotten the job (as, let's suppose, you would have, had I not interfered).

  3. For my perspective I thoroughly agree with Huemer here, that it's a valid move to point out that in principle immigration controls are by their nature punitive. As you say, that leaves plenty of scope for a gradualist policy which will defend against the only objection that's left for people opposed to open borders.

    As for whether a gradualist approach would work, given that we've no real reason to doubt the economic common sense which suggests that increasing the supply of labour generates more economic good than cost (to say nothing of the demographics: immigrants tend to be younger and better skilled as a whole) a gradualist programme could be beneficial. It certainly could, under the right conditions, lead to a virtuous cycle of where the benefits of immigration can finally start to convince people to be more cosmopolitan in general.

  4. What about open borders in a Nordic welfare state where most immigrants from certain groups are unemployed and live on government handouts (a statistical fact)? Isn't that a different case than open borders to a free-market economy where the newcomers don't become a burden for taxpayers?

    1. Huemer discusses this objection. His response is that the government may be more selective in its handouts if it wishes, but it can't (morally) use the fact that it insists on giving everyone inside the borders handouts as a reason to prevent people from entering its borders.

    2. That said, in practice I would be okay with just granting unlimited work visas, but not allowing people into the country (beyond standard tourist/visit durations) without a job offer.


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